Sunset Blogevard

Living online can make you feel like a has-been before you’re 20

Josh Harris, the subject of 2009 documentary We Live in Public, was an early dot-com multimillionaire who founded the data projection company Jupiter Research in 1986, and “Internet TV” website Pseudo.com in 1993; nearly 20 years before the Bay Area mutated into a multiplying petri dish of startups and “disrupting” entered its common parlance. He was a brash yet eccentric figure who held lavish parties in downtown Manhattan where super-nerds and supermodels commingled, and sometimes dressed up as a clown for business parties. We Live in Public was named after Quiet: We Live in Public, Harris’s art project where 100 people agreed to live in an underground bunker in downtown Manhattan with their every move surveilled; a lurid mix of MTV’s The Real World and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Harris is one of the earliest examples of “internet fame,” a concept that is both glittering and mundane. Its roots lie in the so-called democratization of the web, where not everybody is famous for 15 minutes, but as Scottish artist Momus once suggested, everybody is famous to 15 people. It is a concept defined by its evanescence; to be internet famous is to capture the total coalescence of a cultural idea for a split second, before the culture moves on to find new representatives. Take Jennifer Ringley, the college student who broadcast her life 24/7 via her dorm room webcam in the mid 1990s; or Julia Allison who, in 2008, graced the cover of Wired magazine sitting coyly in a pair of strappy stiletto sandals next to bold script that read, “Get Internet Famous! (Even If You’re Nobody).” Allison was a dating columnist at Time Out New York, she but spent her off hours actively pursuing attention — including “leaking” that Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz used to be her babysitter — for which she received plenty of the currency she sought out: eyeballs. Her behavior quickly garnered its own heavily-populated tag on Gawker, and hating on Julia Allison became public sport. Yet she thrived on it all, and Allison and Gawker formed their own symbiotic mutualistic relationship, the way an oxpecker bird eats ticks off a rhino’s back.

Instead of being a passive consumer of celebrity content, the internet allows us to become actively complicit in courting of our own fame

Julia Allison wasn’t just famous for being famous. She was famous for courting fame, and for epitomizing the sort of fame she sought. She was the apotheosis of a microcelebrity, a term coined by Theresa Senft that describes the deploying of personality online “as if it were a branded good.” Instead of being a passive consumer of celebrity content, the internet allows us to become actively complicit in courting of our own fame. Allison’s was relatively modest fame, through relatively modest means. No matter how many times she made “Gawker Stalker,” it seemed unlikely that she’d ever be mauled by fans on the street, but at the height of her celebrity she received constant, immediate verification that she existed as an idea to other people. To those paying attention, Allison crystallized the potential of a new pastime — attention-seeking as a game, with “social media function[ing] as a giant scoreboard” — one that may not yield wealth or power, but can at least satisfy a craving, and provide a certain validation beyond what an immediate circle of family and friends can offer.

At the height of his fleeting but singular, niche celebrity, Josh Harris proclaimed: “Andy Warhol was wrong. Everybody doesn’t want only 15 minutes of fame, they want 15 minutes of fame every day.” But if the pleasures of being seen on Gawker are just as vivid as those of being vaulted onto a billboard in Times Square, so are the pains of being ignored.

In 2006, when Allison was busy showing up to Gawker parties in a bustier covered in condoms, I was a 16-year-old more preoccupied with redecorating my Myspace profile and shoplifting Bad Religion CDs from Walmart than the bitchy hierarchy of who’s hot and who’s not on the internet. But I also had a proclivity for wearing skirts over jeans, and after reading about fashion blogs in my teen bible, Elle Girl magazine, I began to document my love of pairing together inexplicable outerwear online. I took grainy mirror pictures of my outfits using my parent’s low-res digital camera, and publicly fawned over the latest designer collections. I discovered a burgeoning community of friends from far away who loved doing the same; and, ever so slowly, my blog transitioned from an accessible diary to a public platform. I went from making friends to having fans.

IRL I led a pretty normal life; first as a high-school student, then as an undergraduate doing a degree in environmental studies and working part time in retail at American Apparel. Friends liked to send up my online hobby, nicknaming me “Teen Vogue.” But online, I was a somebody. People used my photos to make inspiration collages, drew fan art, and left dozens of fawning comments on each post. My blog garnered around a thousand unique visitors per day, and readers saw me as something between idol and potential pal. Interacting with the strangers who had miraculously found my blog became my favorite pastime. I was not only included, but revered, and as the positive affirmations piled up, they started to feel less like a random fluke and more of a confirmation of a secret suspicion I had always held: that I was special.

While not everyone wants to be famous, most people inhabit some degree of craving attention or adulation. Dr. John Maltby, a researcher at the University of Leicester, has linked an interest in fame to vulnerability, “neuroticism, low self-esteem and problematic attachments.” My online identity seemed the reverse of what I’d known throughout middle and high school — it was an oasis in a friendless desert. Like all kids herded into academic enrichment, I’d grown up hearing about my “potential,” and finally, that potential was being expressed, in a way that felt like both destiny and revenge.

Interacting with the strangers who had miraculously found my blog became my favorite pastime

Once the attention began to waver, however, I realized that what I had considered genuine hallmarks of my personality were little more than representative of a trend. I listened to Nirvana and the Breeders and Liz Phair incessantly, and my favorite television show was My So-Called Life. I wore vintage sunflower dresses paired with Doc Martens, unflattering mom jeans and plaid flannels. I had occupied a space somewhere in the middle of the fashion blog hierarchy, between the followed and the follower — not so big that I was invited to fashion weeks, but not nobody — and like Julia Allison, my popularity crested a trend that was much bigger than I could effect. My content was relevant; “I” was relevant content. My blog stood for the sensibility shared by those who commented. I was a harbinger of millennials obsessed with ’90s nostalgia, but when the pseudo-grunge revival was no longer cool, neither was I. According to Alice Marwick, one of the key attributes of microcelebrity is authenticity, but for me it truly was.

I walked away from blogging in 2012, for myriad reasons both personal and professional. Blogging had become big business: Recently, WWD reported that some top fashion and beauty influencers have the power to move tens of thousands of dollars worth of product in less than 24 hours, and I had little to no interest in becoming a shill. I had gained a little weight that manifested in my face, and I no longer liked the way I looked in pictures. The vacuous likes I relied on for validation eventually withdrew their support; my final post, announcing my departure from the blog world, drew zero comments. As much as I’d identified with the persona I had constructed online, I am not, I discovered, a blog.

Since Harris’s time, and even Allison’s, many more of us have acquired the resources to be known by name overnight, and many more of us have had the experience of being temporarily famous, or at least going viral. Celebrity is now a fairly common experience, a coming-of-age ordeal, though we aren’t necessarily equipped for the fallout. For those who come to depend on the attention, the fall from “grace” can be extremely painful. In a 2011 article published in the Journal of Popular Culture, K. Bryant Smalley and William D. McIntosh chart three categories of ways people deal with losing fame: clinging, reinvention, and downward spiral. The category a person falls into has to do with their relationship with their “core self,” which is separate from the public self that fame has constructed for them. People who manage to reinvent themselves — the little boy from The Shining grew up to become a biology teacher; Jennifer Ringley has said that she now enjoys a life mostly offline — have a strong core self, and are able to see themselves beyond the fame.

Clinging and downward spiral both stem from a loss of this core self. Clingers begin to see themselves as the person the public sees, and continue to attempt to drum up interest by doing the same thing over and over. Downward spiralers tend to experience conflict between the core and the public self, and seek escape, often in the form of an addiction. Those who become famous while children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to the aftereffects of fame: because they are still developing a sense of self, “the public self imposed on them by fame could easily be adopted as the core self. Once that fame has faded, the young ex-celebrity is left with nothing but an artificial public self.”

Once my days of internet fame were over, I began to feel as if there was nothing left of me at all. I floated around the general population like a vaporous ghost, completely invisible but waiting to be noticed nonetheless. Being a marginally famous blogger was the only aspect of my life that I had assigned any value to whatsoever: Friends and family were all kindling in my selfish quest to become a person of note, and when it was all over I was completely alone. I watched my former peers rack up 10,000 Instagram followers and felt a remote bitterness some days; on others I was consumed by a seething, Voldemort-level jealousy. It didn’t help that the end of my blogging tenure coincided with the onset of my early 20s, a notoriously turbulent time of life that manifested for me as what I’ve yet to determine as normal or a bout of serious depression.

There’s nothing quite like realizing the fans have moved on and the only way to progress is forget who you were entirely or become who you were all along

I don’t know how Julia Allison felt when her name ceased to be click-bait, but her post-fame behavior indicates, at the very least, an ongoing fondness for attention. In 2012, she attempted to orchestrate a return to the public eye, appearing on a reality show called Miss Advised as a so-called relationship expert, and blogging about the show every week for Elle. “I tried being microfamous,” she told the Observer. “That stuff is super empty. It would be really nice to try it in a different way.” The author of the profile noted that “one of the pitfalls of constructing your entire existence around being famous is that once you are a nobody, you might as well be dead.”

The specter of Julia Allison haunts the internet graveyard as a curiosity in the annals of internet culture, a superstar of Gawker’s heyday, and an icon of the micro-era she always belonged to; for those who care to search for her, Julia Allison remains a gif of Julia Allison. The outcome of internet celebrity is a forever-archive of your glorified self, but what matters more than search-engine hits is the self you identify with, and the sense that anyone cares whether it lives or dies.

The stunt that Josh Harris is most remembered for was the beginning of his downfall. Harris spent millions of dollars on Quiet: We Live in Public, equipping it with a gun range and as much free food as the inhabitants could stomach. After the police busted the panopticon of bacchanalia, he turned the surveillance camera inwards and live-broadcast his relationship with live-in girlfriend Tanya Corrin for voyeuristic eyeballs. But less than a year later, the dotcom bubble burst, and along with all his funds, Harris lost the notoriety of being an internet pioneer. He slunk away from public life, moving to upstate New York to become an apple farmer.

When the documentary catches up with Harris during his Old MacDonald phase, it’s clear that the quiet life fits him about as well as an itchy, woolen grandpa sweater. He claims that the relationship with Tanya was staged, because distancing yourself from your vulnerability makes the world hurt less. It’s clear he still craves the adulation and glory he received in his former life, but he’s not getting it anymore, so he tries to suppress those needs in himself, but the longing to be loved still lurks in his eyes.

Post apple farm, he tries one last ditch at the public life, pitching a chat website to the founders of Myspace, which leads to incredibly cringeworthy footage of Myspace co-founder Chris DeWolfe saying “I’ve never heard of Josh Harris. I’m not familiar with him.” Harris left the startup business with his tail between his legs, eventually, taking his white savior complex to Ethiopia to coach basketball and start something called the African Entertainment Network. There’s nothing quite like realizing that the fans you thought were your friends have moved on and the only way for you to progress is to forget who you were entirely or to become who you knew you were all along. Both Harris and I are classic “clingers”; we keep trying to do the thing we were once good at getting attention for, but never quite manage to recapture the zeitgeist that crested us up, then dropped us off.

In the past six months, I’ve been recognized twice. Once in a movie theatre after a screening of Blade Runner, where a stranger approached me and said, “You look familiar. Where do I know you from? Didn’t you write a blog?” The other time I locked eyes with a stranger in a Cuban restaurant and watched her facial expression shift from confusion to recognition as she slowly came up to talk to me. My old blog interface was featured for a nanosecond in a British Vogue documentary hosted by Alexa Chung. While researching for this piece, I stumbled upon an entire hate thread dedicated to me on Get Off My Internets calling my ego a “house of cards” and my blog so obnoxious they “can’t even hate-read” the entries. (To paraphrase Rico Richie, “if you don’t have haters, then you ain’t poppin’.”) Sometimes I feel like I’m a batty old MGM star with electrical socket curls wandering aimlessly around the Hollywood lot yelling, “I used to be a star once” at no one in particular. On more practical days, I feel like a regular adult making a successful living in the gig economy.

Post blog existence, I felt like I was dead. I had to rebuild my entire conception of my identity back up from scratch. Most days I still feel like a wonky scarecrow leaking straw out of every orifice. Part of the trouble is that what I do for a living; writing, largely on the internet, is not that different than how I achieved microcelebrity in the first place. My core self hasn’t had the opportunity to shift entirely, the way it would have if say, I had become a fish biologist after being a fashion blogger. In order to move on, I’ve locked up the contents of my old blog so no one else can snoop through my formative years, and hope that eventually my work as a writer will eclipse my renown as a teenage fashion blogger.

Josh Harris may no longer be a regular talking head on CNN, but his name lives on, as both a distinctive pioneer at the crossroads of technology and entertainment, and as the subject of a fascinating documentary. Josh Harris lives, too. There’s no need for screaming fans or obsessive followers. All we need is to look in the mirror and remind ourselves we exist.

Isabel B. Slone is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in Toronto. She has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Flare, the Hairpin, Hazlitt, and Vice.